News of a Kidnapping
The Road to Guantánamo entwines three kinds of narration. The first consists of testimonies given straight into the camera by Asif, Rhuhel and Shafiq. They are in their mid-20s now, robust and bearded (the latter two in the flowing style of the pious). All three speak with quiet self-assurance, laughing incredulously more often than voicing anger--though you'll notice that Asif's eyes no longer work together well.
The film's second narrative strand is a dramatization of these testimonies, shot in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and featuring previously untried young performers (Rizwan Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui and Arfan Usman) playing the principal roles. These boyish actors, though thoroughly convincing, look nothing like the men you see in the interviews; and so the film subtly marks their scenes as re-creations, despite the immediacy and intensity of these episodes--the jostling market crowds and jouncing buses, the swarms of flies, the shiny new six-foot-square cages.
In style, these parts of the movie recall Winterbottom's remarkable 2002 film In This World, which re-created the journey of an Afghan boy, Jamal Udin Torabi, from a refugee camp in Pakistan to the streets of London. The probings and dartings of the hand-held camera, the unsettling rhythms of the editing, keep you caught up physically in the scenes, which tend to emphasize corporeal experience: how the characters washed, what they ate, where they went to the toilet. But for all that, you may remark during the episodes at Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta that you're not witnessing events but watching a reconstruction of them, based on the inmates' memories. You may wonder: Did the guards force prisoners to kneel in just this way, eating gravel while presenting their buttocks? When a five-man team in riot gear came to seize someone, did they quick-step as you see here, single-file, so they looked like a giant black caterpillar? We'll probably never know; the Guantánamo manual of procedure is not likely to be published. These visceral realizations may therefore be the closest we'll come to the truth, even though they are, admittedly, just realizations.
So The Road to Guantánamo establishes an implied distance between its fictionalizations and the facts--a distance that meanwhile keeps collapsing, due to the film's third type of narration: clips of news footage, and studio-produced voiceovers made to sound like a reporter's off-camera commentary. This material is the glue of the movie, sticking scenes together with a layer of information or a gloss of authenticity. The reportage, both fake and real, thickens the emotion (as does the film's other glue, the soundtrack music, which is the usual Winterbottom minimalism--like "Adagio for Strings" boiled down to syrup). It also adds a weight of objectivity to whatever you're seeing, no matter how subjective the underlying source.
Now, I don't have any problem with this approach--but then, neither am I the sort of person who denies that something awful has been going on at Guantánamo. Those who prefer to believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the abuses are minor and necessary--that Guantánamo holds only terrorists and their allies, who are treated no more roughly than they must be--may seize on Winterbottom and Whitecross's double game as an excuse to dismiss the whole movie. These critics (I'm sure they're out there) will insist this docudrama is culpable on both the formal and ethical levels.
Do the ends justify the means? That depends, I suppose, not only on the nature of the ends but on whether the means have a chance of achieving them. From documented facts, rather than docudrama, we know that the means used at Guantánamo, besides being repugnant in themselves, are wildly unlikely to deter the world's terrorists. By contrast, the means used in The Road to Guantánamo are both artful and effective.
Besides, if The Road to Guantánamo may be compared to an interrogator because of the tricks it practices--playing on the audience's suggestibility, for example, by compiling battle scenes out of a handful of night-scope images and a whole lot of sound effects--so too might it be likened in shadiness to the Tipton Three themselves. The young men's salvation, it turned out, was their history of run-ins with the law. "The police were our alibi," one of the men says with satisfaction, noting that he'd been reporting to his probation officer during the whole period when supposedly--so the interrogators said--he'd been off training in an Al Qaeda camp. It's possible for a well-timed misdemeanor to clear you of a hanging offense; and a bit of directorial fudging sometimes can make a film more rather than less ethical.